To hear him tell it, no one is more tired of war than US president Barack Obama — yet he is warning that combat fatigue must not get in the way of a new US military escapade in the Middle East.
Ironies abound as Obama contemplates US air strikes on Syria, an operation that will show how a president’s early ideas about wielding power can be reshaped by the dilemmas of office.
Once, candidate Obama chastized George W. Bush for a “cowboy” foreign policy, an “imperial” presidency, and for alienating allies and aking the US into war with cooked intelligence.
However, on the cusp of striking Syria, Obama wants Americans to again take on trust intelligence on weapons of mass destruction, despite the CIA’s credibility being poisoned by its botched “slam dunk” case for war in Iraq.
After once promising to go to war only with an international coalition and with backing from Congress, Obama stands almost alone, dumped by the US’ closest ally Britain, and is snubbing the UN and bucking public opinion.
Connoisseurs of incongruity may also note that Obama’s main military ally in the Syrian adventure figures to be France, the target of endless bile from Americans when it rejected Bush’s invitation to help invade Iraq.
Obama has spent two years trying to keep out of Syria, to spare his nation a new Middle East quagmire — but is now being accused of rushing to war — after the administration last week declared that a UN inspection team’s mission there was irrelevant in establishing culpability for a chemical weapons attack.
It is also ironic that a politician who made a career on opposing the Iraq war, finds his efforts to sell a new regional operation complicated by that disastrous conflict.
“Iraq has so fundamentally shattered the trust the American people have in the president when it comes to war and peace that it makes doing the right thing, frankly, much harder,” a former senior Obama national security aide said.
Obama on Friday said he knew Americans were tired of conflict abroad.
“Nobody ends up being more war-weary than me,” said Obama, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy.”
However, “Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility,” US Secretary of State John Kerry added.
The contradictions of the Syrian drama, and the fact that he wants his legacy to be that of a president who got America out of wars, not into new ones, appeared to consume Obama for days.
Aides have repeatedly told journalists that the “president has not made a decision” — styling their boss’s agonizing as the act of a sober leader weighing his not very good options.
Obama has seen his preference for a UN-endorsed mission to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime thwarted by a recalcitrant Russia — and the usual double act with “special relationship”-buddy Britain was sensationally dashed by the House of Commons.
Yet he knows going it alone carries a price.
“There are rules of international law,” Obama said on CNN a week ago. “If the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are question in terms of whether international law supports it,” he said.
A week on, Obama appears to have resolved the dilemma and acknowledged the limits of multilateralism.
“I’ve shown consistently, my strong preference for multilateral action whenever possible,” Obama said on Friday.
Yet the US may also have to act alone if necessary, he said, to enshrine the principle that chemical weapons must not be used in a way that could endanger US allies and national security — and to side with civilians in the path of a war crime.
Benjamin Jensen, an American University political science academic, said US foreign policy since World War II had been dominated by the idea of building a multilateral international diplomatic and economic order.
“President Obama has multiple times indicated his commitment to that kind of liberal internationalist vision,” he said. “That’s where this becomes a real awkward moment if he decides to move forward [on Syria].”
Obama’s credibility is in question because he declared that the use of a “whole bunch” of chemical weapons by al-Assad in the civil war would cross a US red line.
Kerry appeared to implicitly acknowledge that view on Friday, saying the world was watching what the US would do in Syria.
However, he cast the argument wider, saying US foes were judging how Washington reacted to violations of international order.
“They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it ... it is about Iran ... it is about Hezbollah and North Korea,” Kerry said.
So, the ultimate irony may be that Obama may enter a war in Syria, so he does not have to fight one somewhere else.